||Bridget, an incoming junior at St. Ambrose School in Madison, brushes accumulated grime off of the crucifix in St. Andrew Parish Cemetery in Verona, before painting it July 14 during the Love Begins Here service project. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner) Click here for more photos of Love Begins Here.
VERONA -- The final week of Love Begins Here could have been called “Extreme Church Makeover.”
Working outside in uninterrupted sun and what felt like enough heat to cook their dinner that night, groups of high school students painted the outside walls of St. Andrew Church in Verona and scrubbed the accumulated grime from the crucifix in the cemetery July 14. Another set of students was likewise engaged with cleaning and painting and other tasks at St. Bridget Church in Ridgeway.
These students had come from parishes and families around the Diocese of Madison to do work for those in need within the diocese.
Blessed Mother Teresa, on whose words the Love Begins Here project was founded, spoke in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture of exactly that kind of love: of working within our own community, within our own family to bring Christ to the world.
“There is so much suffering, so much hatred, so much misery, and we with our prayer, with our sacrifice are beginning at home,” she said. “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do. It is to God Almighty — how much we do it does not matter, because He is infinite, but how much love we put in that action. How much we do to Him in the person that we are serving.”
Over the four weeks of the second annual Love Begins Here mission project, more than 130 middle school and high school students had the opportunity to build love here in their diocesan home — service ranging from cleaning and gardening to preparing for a garage sale to benefit a family whose child has autism. Weeding, in particular, said program coordinator Lindsay Becher, has been their specialty.
“To see their faith in action, to see their faith works is inspiring for the parishioners,” said Fr. William Vernon, pastor of St. Andrew Parish. “It’s been inspiring to see 25 young high school students stay with us for the week and be devout and hardworking and have fun.”
And the service hasn’t been one-sided: just as Mother Teresa said in her lecture, the youth participating in service have been given as much as — if not more than — they have given. Those who benefited from the service work spent time teaching the youth how they helped the community in turn, and the parishes in which they built their base camps welcomed them into the family for daily Mass and other activities.
As groups, the youth built their own family by taking turns cooking dinner every night — even informally competing to be the best chefs and put on the fanciest presentation. The adults and seminarians who came to help out and the priests who offered Confessions were invited to share the meal alongside them.
But after their work at Paul and Barbara Kramer’s property in Dodgeville, clearing trees and tending the outdoor shrine and Stations of the Cross, the Kramers treated them to dinner and wouldn’t let them lift a finger to help prepare it.
On a different week, one parishioner in Verona, while the youth were staying there, invited the group out to his local airfield for a little time off from their hard work.
The youth were learning about Mother Teresa’s words about building love from the family outwards — and the love that is then returned.
“I think it teaches them what it means to be hospitable, that what we have we need to share with others,” Becher said. “And it shows them that when you put out the effort, it’s really appreciated. A lot of people want to give out of their abundance.”
“You feel better about doing the service; it’s not just about you — it’s about the person you’re doing it for,” said Jack, a high school sophomore at Edgewood High School and parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in Madison.
Since they began the week, Jack said his faith has gotten stronger: there’s no dread at having to get up early and go to Mass, to get involved. “It’s only been a few days, but it’s been amazing,” he said.
“Doing the work, you get through it with a smile on your face,” he said. “And when you get done you think, ‘I really enjoyed that.’”
“I’ve worked with youth for a long time, and I’ve never found it so easy to connect with them as when you’re scraping down a crucifix or painting a wall or pulling weeds,” Becher said, waving towards the group who were scrubbing at the cemetery crucifix. The four youth and young adult chaperone were singing, laughing, and chatting as they worked in the full sun.
Becher, who also serves as director of youth and young adult ministry at St. Joseph Parish, Baraboo, said that engaging in the service work is a way for the youth to connect and open up to their faith. Through Mass, Rosary, Confession, prayer, and even a specially tailored Seder meal and Stations of the Cross at the end of the week, the youth were deepening their understanding of what it means to be Catholic.
Father Vernon mentioned the verse in James: “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jm 2:17).
“I firmly believe that they’re growing in their love for Christ and the Church through their work,” he said.
And with just one weeklong session of this year’s Love Begins Here bringing in more youth than all of last year’s participants combined, it’s clear that the strong connection between faith and works is making an impression. Not only are the youth coming back: they’re encouraging others to come with them.
“I’m always impressed when they come on their own,” Becher said. “And then they go to their parish and say, ‘we should do this.’ We’ve seen them bring kids back with them this year — they bring a group from their parish, and it’s so cool because they’re getting it. They’re on fire with love.”